KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s invasion in February prompted a wave of public support for the government of President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy as millions of Ukrainians raced to help defend their homeland. Four months later — amid Russian advances and spiking casualties — anger and frustration over the handling of the war is swelling.
In interviews with Ukrainians who have family members fighting the invaders, many said they were upset with the military leadership for deploying inexperienced people to the front lines, and at times sending them into battle without as much as a medical or a psychological examination.
“I am ready to protest,” said Viktoriia Bilan-Rashchuk, 43, of Kyiv, whose husband, Volodymyr, a theater actor with no previous military experience, is fighting on the eastern front line in Sievierodonetsk. Last month, she said, she raised money to send his unit protective headphones — standard military equipment used to prevent hearing loss for soldiers firing off rocket systems.
“No one even taught him how to shoot.”
said Olena Zhabyak-Sheremet
“The government isn’t doing enough to support them. The longer this goes on, the more people will become upset,” Bilan-Rashchuk said in Ukrainian, speaking through a translator.
Ukraine’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Since Russia invaded in February, thousands of Ukrainians with no military background have volunteered to fight. To boost its war efforts, the Ukrainian government has also banned men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country in case it needs to start a draft. In May, Zelenskyy said the country’s military had 700,000 service members, including women.
Through a relentless campaign of appearances, interviews and statements, Zelenskyy has fought to keep morale high among troops and the general public and plead the country’s case to the international community. But Russian artillery attacks have intensified in the east in recent months, pushing the Ukrainian military death toll to between 100 and 200 soldiers a day in combat, with at least another 500 injured every day, Mykhailo Podolyak, an aide to Zelenskyy, said in an interview earlier this month with the BBC.
In his daily address June 14, Zelenskyy called the losses “painful,” but said Ukrainians “have to hold on.”
Despite the high death toll, Ukrainian officials have maintained that troops are well taken care of, with sufficient training, food, equipment and rest.
But as the war grinds on, what makes some Ukrainians especially angry is the lack of basic military equipment for those on the front lines. Some military families have been forced to organize donation drives to send medical supplies and military equipment to the front lines.
Svitlana Lukianenko, whose husband worked in information technology before the war but is also now fighting near Sievierodonetsk, worries the Ukrainian military is not replacing the dead and injured soldiers fast enough, leaving her husband at greater risk with each passing day.
“The government needs to mobilize more people, but they also need to train them. There’s not enough training and it’s a big problem,” she said. “That’s why we have such a high death toll.”
“We are angry for them,” Lukianenko added.
Zelenskyy has also dismissed reports that some front-line troops had poor protective equipment.
“The reports I receive are significantly different from what is discussed by society,” he said in the same address. “Today, everyone in the areas of hostilities must have everything they need to protect themselves,” he said. “The state provides such supplies.”
Luiza Dorner, 25, of Kyiv, whose husband is fighting in the Donbas region, said that statements from Zelenskyy and other government officials have started to ring hollow. When she talks to her husband on the phone, she said, she can hear the fear and exhaustion in his voice.